Routt County youth have struggled but adapted to COVID-19 shake-ups in learning

Routt County students learn to adapt to the ever-changing nature of COVID-19. (Getty Images/stock)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Hailie Fineran has had to navigate more challenges than most during the COVID-19 pandemic. Fineran, a 13-year-old seventh grader at Soroco Middle School in Oak Creek, has severe asthma, meaning if she caught COVID-19 she may be more likely to suffer severe side effects. She also had to spend three weeks in quarantine around the holidays after finding out a family member tested positive.

“It definitely hasn’t been easy,” Fineran said.

Still, Fineran has tried to focus on the positives the past year — her school has been almost entirely in person, and she still gets to see a few close friends, with safety measures in place.

“Because I’m immunocompromised, I have to have a better mindset of trying to keep myself healthy when I’m around people,” Fineran said. “I don’t want to go through that because I know other people with asthma who have had it, and they said breathing becomes extremely hard.”

Many of Fineran’s friends are in grades above her and she can no longer socialize with them during school because students are separated into small classes and kept within their own class to mitigate COVID-19 spread.

“I haven’t been able to talk to my friends that often,” Fineran said “It’s definitely hard because a lot of the times they can help me with my work and now I can’t ask them for that.”

Mia Bitonti, a 14-year-old freshman at Soroco High School, said she’s relieved that she chose Soroco over Steamboat Springs High School.

Bitonti chose to attend Soroco before COVID-19 hit because she wanted a smaller environment. Steamboat has also been through several quarantines, while Bitonti has been able to attend in-person classes the entire school year at Soroco, which she said is beneficial for her since she sometimes struggles.

“I learn so much better in person,” Bitonti said. “When I’m just on my computer, I just don’t seem to understand very well.”

Not receiving the traditional high school experience — with after-school dances, sports games and freedom to mingle with peers — has taken a toll on Bitonti’s mental health.

“It’s been hard to not have those types of activities,” Bitonti said. “School dances were fun when we could have crowds and you just have fun, but now you can’t really do that because COVID messed up everything.”

Hannah Clune, Bitonti’s mentor with Partners in Routt County, said not having the social events, part of the quintessential high school experience, “breaks my heart.”

“One thing I’ve noticed is that I’m constantly asking her if she’s happy to be in school or if she’d rather be virtual, and she’s always said she’s so happy they’re in person,” Clune said. “But it breaks my heart a little bit because she can’t have school dances or sporting events.”

While not having after-school events is a drawback, Clune said in-person learning has been incredibly beneficial for Bitonti as she is still able to make some connections and have her questions answered right away, rather than waiting for a Zoom class to be over or having to email a teacher.

“Kids are getting burnt out on Zoom just like adults are,” Clune said. “I think just to be even with your other peers and see them in person is something that we’ve taken for granted in the past.”

Trying to make the best of things

When Grant Linford learned his school experience would transition away from sitting in a classroom five days a week, he knew he needed to try and adapt to the changes by looking for the positive.

Grant Linford, 16 (Courtesy photo)

“It’s hard in some ways,” said Linford, a 16-year-old sophomore at Steamboat Springs High School. “But I have a lot more time, and it’s brought me closer to my friends and family.”

Linford also said he prefers learning at home, as he is able to take things slower and learn at his own pace, rather than having to follow along with a large group of students.

While students around the country have had to adapt to different learning models, education experts in Steamboat said some students have preferred remote learning.

“Our students are very resilient and have adapted,” said Jay Hamric, director of teaching and learning at Steamboat Springs School District. “All in all, academically speaking, I feel like our families and kids have stepped up and done an amazing job.”

However, Hamric added, inequities in education that existed before COVID-19 have become more pronounced throughout the last year.

“The distanced learning does take supervision and engagement from the parents to make that successful, that’s a key component,” Hamric said.

Low-income parents who cannot work from home may not be able to help their children as much as their more affluent counterparts, Hamric added.

Lauren Burns, behavioral health interventionist and restorative practices coordinator at Steamboat High School, echoed Hamric’s concerns about inequalities among students in Routt County.

“A lot of our students are working more, and there are students who need to support their families more through financial crises,” Burns said. “Some students are really thriving and some are really struggling.”

Struggling outside of school

While Hamric and Burns agreed many students have struggled to adapt to remote and hybrid learning, both said mental health struggles have plagued students nearly as much, if not more, than academic ones.

“There’s definitely more depression and more anxiety going on,” Burns said. “We don’t necessarily see all of it and at the beginning of the year, I think we knew there are probably more mental health struggles our students were having than what we were hearing about.”

Ella DeWolfe, an 11-year-old in sixth grader at Steamboat Springs Middle School, said she has faced mental health struggles making it difficult for her to focus.

Ella DeWolfe, 11 (Courtesy photo)

“My stress and anxiety increased and it was really stressful to get all my homework done,” DeWolfe said. “I think going back to school is going to be awesome.”

Students at Steamboat schools are split into cohorts to minimize exposure to COVID-19, and DeWolfe said having to make friends within hers was difficult at first, though now she’s appreciative of the opportunity to make new friends.

“Just meeting new people made me more grateful for the things I have,” DeWolfe said. “It definitely changed my thoughts and emotions about life.”

Many students have struggled not being able to socialize with their friends outside of the classroom or participate in extracurricular activities.

“The students that do follow COVID protocols as much as possible have had less contact with their friends for a year now,” said Archie Shipp, principal at Hayden High School. “With kids this age, social distancing is extremely difficult.”

Shipp also said students missing out on school sports games has been a loss for the community as a whole, as the games were often an occasion for the entire community to come together.

“Not getting to see them have a normal experience is really hard for the whole community,” Shipp said. “They haven’t gotten to have that normal all-American experience that they’ve come to expect and that’s been extremely difficult on them.”

Enforcing the rules

“You feel like you’re the Grinch Who Stole Christmas and you keep stealing every holiday and every activity,” Shipp said. “It’s not because we want to, it’s because we’re required to try and keep them safe.”

Shipp also said enforcing masks and social distancing is often unpopular among teenagers, particularly if a student comes from a family that has not taken COVID-19 seriously.

“As teachers and administrators, we’re trying to do what’s right but doing what’s right isn’t always what’s popular with the students or the community or the parents,” Shipp said. “We’re asking them to distance so they can’t have that human touch that kids so desperately need.”

Light at the end of the tunnel

As Routt County and the state have lifted some COVID-19 restrictions due to declining cases, students and administrators said they are hopeful for the future of their education, particularly as more people receive vaccines.

“We’re excited that our staff has received the second vaccine dose,” Shipp said. “We can see an end to this.”

Hamric agreed and said while schools have made the most of difficult circumstances, students and administrators look forward to students being able to have a sense of normalcy again.

“There is a greater picture to see and that’s getting the connection with peers back,” Hamric said.

Steamboat Middle School has plans to return to in-person learning March 22, which DeWolfe said she believes will help her mental state greatly.

“I’m excited to go back and have the normal feeling again,” DeWolfe said.

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